Pike River mine tragedy: Possible human remains found, police say

Publish Date
Friday, 12 May 2023, 11:49AM

Human remains have potentially been found inside the Pike River Mine, nearly 13 years since explosions killed 29 men, police have said today.

Police and mining experts have been drilling holes deep into the underground coal mine on the West Coast of the South Island, searching for more clues in the ongoing criminal probe into the disaster.

Today, police have revealed that recent images captured from the borehole drilling programme indicate the possibility of human remains in the vicinity of borehole six.

Borehole six is in an area where men were known to be building a stopping, or wall, when the mine first exploded on November 19, 2010.

However, two pathologists have viewed the images and are unable to determine whether they definitively show human remains, police said.

Police have been conducting more bore drilling at Pike River. Photo / NZME

Officers have spoken to the families of the three men believed to have been working in the area.

Detective Superintendent Darryl Sweeney, the current officer in charge of the police investigation, took questions at a media conference today.

This week, officers have been on the West Coast to speak to the families of three men.

Twelve years on from the disaster, he recognises it’s still a difficult process for the families.

”Our thoughts are always with them,” he said.

“We recognise this is an incredibly difficult process for the families of the 29 men killed at Pike River,” said Detective Superintendent Darryl Sweeney said.

“While we can’t say with any certainty that we’ve located human remains, we have shared what we’ve found as well as the pathologists’ conclusions.

Police have a clear very understanding of where all the men were working that day and have told the families involved that it’s very likely they were in that area.

When the borehole stage ends in the next few weeks, the criminal investigation will conclude and he hopes that they will have some conclusions by the end of the year.

”We’re close,” Sweeney said.

He added that they now have the “facts and evidence” to be able to make some decisions. However, he wouldn’t say if anyone would be charged at this stage.

“Our thoughts are with the families as they process this news.”

Work began on 10 additional boreholes in late January this year.

The final three holes will be drilled in the coming weeks, concluding the police investigation at the mine.

In November 2021, a specialist borehole camera spotted the remains of at least two men, with the possibility of a third, in an area where six or eight men were working at the time of the explosion.

The bodies are in the “furthest part of the mine from the entrance”, which means police will not be able to recover them.

“It’s not unexpected, we know there’s 29 men down there and we’re drilling boreholes where we know people were working,” Detective Superintendent Peter Read said at the time.

“We still haven’t finished the boreholes yet so there is a possibility there might be more [bodies found] - we can’t rule that out.”

On Friday, November 19, 2010, at about 3.44pm, an explosion ripped through the Pike River underground coal mine, followed by subsequent explosions. Two men made it out alive but another 29 were unaccounted for.

Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy found that the “immediate cause of the first explosion was the ignition of a substantial volume of methane gas”, but could only speculate on what might have triggered ignition.

“The mine was new and the owner, Pike River Coal Ltd (Pike), had not completed the systems and infrastructure necessary to safely produce coal. Its health and safety systems were inadequate,” the commission’s report said.

Pike River Mine family members Anna Osborne, left, and Sonya Rockhouse have never stopped fighting for justice. Photo / Mark Mitchell.

WorkSafe laid charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall in 2013, but the case was dropped after a $3.4 million settlement was paid – a deal the Supreme Court later said was unlawful.

The money was split between the two survivors and the families of the 29 missing, a total of $110,000 for each man who had been down the mine that day.

Australian company VLI Drilling, which employed three of the men who died, also pleaded guilty to health and safety charges and was fined $46,800.

The Pike River Recovery Agency (PRRA) completed its $50m re-entry of the mine’s access tunnel to try and recover remains and find any forensic clues in 2021.

It had been due to permanently seal the mine while police were partway through their borehole investigations.

But some Pike River families who lost loved ones, and had fought for years to try and get authorities to try and find their bodies, launched legal action to try and stop it from happening.

Some of the families remain hopeful that a criminal prosecution is still possible.

This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission.

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